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I cannot say that I am pleased with the Minister's response as he poured much cold water over, and resisted, the amendments. I believe that they are worth further consideration. We shall certainly give them further consideration even if the Government do not wish to do so. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"This was a most terrible human tragedy. The whole House will be appalled by this loss of life and our thoughts are with the relatives of those who died. The vehicle concerned was a refrigerated lorry which had been hermetically sealed and the 58 who perished must have died a most terrible death. I would at this point like to pay tribute to Customs officers, officers and civilian staff of the Kent police, and staff of the Immigration Service, for the great dedication and professionalism which they have shown throughout.
"This particular incident is now subject to a major criminal investigation by the Kent police. A man is being held in connection with the incident and will be interviewed. Indications are that these people are from the Far East, but the police are not at this stage able to determine the nationality of those who have died, nor of the two survivors.
"Co-operation between the police, Customs, the Immigration Service and overseas agencies and carriers has been intensified. This particular vehicle was intercepted as a result of an operation by Customs.
"Further to deter trafficking, powers were taken in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to impose civil penalties on hauliers and drivers found with clandestine entrants in their vehicles. Drivers must be on the alert to discourage this dangerous activity. There is already evidence that it is working. A comparison of the two months before the imposition of the civil penalty with the two months after has shown a reduction of 26 per cent of clandestines at Dover. The criminal penalties for facilitation have been increased and new controls on unscrupulous immigration advisers are being imposed.
"I am afraid to say that this terrible tragedy must serve as a stark warning to others who might be tempted to place their fate in the hands of organised traffickers. Those who died tragically last night are the victims of these traffickers.
Viscount Astor: My Lords, we are grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. This is a terrible tragedy. I echo the words of the Minister. I also echo his tribute to the Customs officers, Kent police and the staff of the Immigration Service who have had to deal with this terrible problem.
At the outset, the size of the operation suggests that it is the work of an organised gang. It is extraordinary that already this year one driver has arrived in a port with 117 people in the back of his vehicle and another with 101. We know that in a single day earlier this year 207 people were found hidden in the backs of lorries.
I realise that the Minister will not be able to answer some of the questions concerning this case but I would like to ask him a couple of important questions which do not relate to any criminal charges which might arise. Will he say where the refrigerated container originated? Where did it come from? Perhaps he will also say where the last check was done on the container before it arrived in Dover I presume there was a Customs check before it was finally sealed. It would be
The Government say that there has been a 26 per cent reduction in clandestines. When the Minister uses the word, does he define "clandestines" as those actually caught at Dover, as opposed to any who are perhaps thought to have slipped through the net?
I turn to the international side of this terrible tragedy and dilemma that faces the Government. Perhaps I may ask the Minister what pressure the Government can put on our EU partners so that we can have on the Continent secure, well lit and guarded yards in which lorry drivers can park their vehicles. The drivers want this sort of facility. They need it so that they can inspect their own vehicles. At the moment some yards are not guarded or well lit, which makes it far too easy for people to slip in. I am afraid that there is a lack of co-operation in some ports in Europe.
What is the position when the lorries get on to the ferries? We know that the drivers are forced by the law to leave their lorries on the ferry. They cannot stay with them. We know, of course, that some asylum seekers have jumped from one lorry to another. A perfectly innocent driver may have checked his lorry on the Continent and, having been unable to check it on the ferry, finds on arrival in England that it is full of asylum seekers. I wonder if the Minister can tell us how many large groups, say over 20, have been found in lorries in the past 12 months and whether this a trend that is increasing. When does the Minister expect to have further details about this tragedy?
In spite of the apparent reduction in the numbers trying to gain entry by stowing away in lorries or containers, is there not an incentive for genuine asylum seekers, who have now been debarred from using more conventional means of entry, to adopt dangerous methods of trying to get into the United Kingdom? I am not suggesting that the people who were in this truck could have been asylum seekers. With such large numbers of the kind that we are considering here, there must have been a plot by an organised gang to secure the entry of this group of people.
I wonder if there is any evidence to show that the criminal gangs are now turning their attention to Zeebrugge as a result of better methods of control in Calais. Can the Minister say what progress has been made in tracing the chain further back than the lorries themselves as a result of, for example, looking at the weighing stations where the people have to stay in centres such as Calais or Zeebrugge before they get on to the trucks?
Finally, I wonder if the Minister can say anything about the fact that this truck appears to have been owned by a company not previously known to the authorities. If no steps can be taken immediately to institute a 100 per cent inspection of all vehicles, should there not be a 100 per cent inspection of at least those which seek to get on to the ferries and not previously known to companies such as P&O, the company that carried this particular truck?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful for the tributes that have been paid to the Customs officials who had the unhappy and unfortunate experience of unlocking the back of this truck and finding the human misery that was evident inside.
I shall try to answer as many as possible of the questions that have been raised. However, I have to say at the outset that I am not able to answer some of the questions raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, because they pertain very closely to the questions that will arise in the course of the investigation which it will be absolutely essential for the police to undertake. I cannot, therefore, tell him the initial origin of the truck, nor where the last check was made or how many EU countries the truck passed through.
The noble Lord asked about co-operation. It is fair to say that there is very close co-operation with our EU colleagues. It is a matter which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been actively pursuing. The fact that we have begun to detect an increasing number of trucks that come into the country containing clandestines pays tribute to that very close co-operation.
The noble Viscount asked for some figures relating to trucks and human cargo. I can give him some details, but they are limited to the period from 4th April to 19th June, which covers the period during which civil penalties were introduced. So far, 199 penalties have been served. As a result of the detection activities of our officials, 1,102 clandestines have been discovered during that period; 35 lorries have been detained; and 16 lorries have been released against guarantees of payment.
The statement was made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary that there has been a drop of 26 per cent in the number of clandestines discovered. We believe that that is because of the imposition of civil penalties. I am aware that civil penalties were opposed in certain quarters of your Lordships' House. However, we believe that they are
I turn to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. There is, of course, a perverse incentive for many economic migrants to enter this country. The UK is a very good place in which to live and it offers many opportunities for people. There is little doubt that organised gangs seek to profit from the misery of this human trafficking, and we need to take very swift and firm action to tackle that problem and to deal with it. That is why we have put in place the legislation which, I am pleased to say, is now becoming ever more effective.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether it was possible to detect the presence of human beings using other methods. We have in place an effective complement of staff at Dover and other ports who carry out checks on trucks as they enter the country using dogs and transponders. That is why we have become increasingly effective in detecting human traffic.
The noble Lord also made the suggestion that checks using those techniques should be carried out on board ship and at the port of origin. Clearly the port of origin is not a matter for us. I should need to give careful consideration as to whether the use of dogs and transponders on board would be helpful, but the noble Lord makes an important and valid point.
The methods and techniques that we are using are becoming increasingly effective. Each lorry and truck is checked by sniffer dogs as it comes off the ship. The dogs are very well trained and have a high success rate. Their handlers are to be congratulated on the way in which they work. When I visited Dover to see how the operation was working, I witnessed the detection of a truckload of clandestines by the dogs. It was an effective and efficient operation. The customs and immigration staff dealt with those detected in a humane and thorough way and are to be congratulated on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether there was an incentive for asylum seekers to gain entry. We take the view that this level of risk is unacceptable and that people should be deterred from seeking to gain entry to this country in this way. That is one of the reasons why it would be much better to consider the way in which asylum in this country is sought. No doubt the noble Lord will have picked up some of the comments made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in this regard over the past few weeks.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I have just made a quick count of the number of noble Lords present in the Chamber; I think there are 63. When one considers that number, the idea of 59, I think it is, dead immigrants in the back of a tomato lorry brings home the total horror of the tragedy and the evil of the traffickers--an evil which is impossible to exaggerate.
I wish to ask two questions. First, have there been any prosecutions, and what likelihood is there of getting at the criminal gangs which are running these scams? Secondly, is it not possible to say to our European neighbours that, in spite of what we said in Dublin, we shall put immigrants straight back on a bus or a train or a ship and send them back from whence they came? That would ensure that our continental friends and acquaintances will make much greater efforts to make sure that these people do not get onto the ghastly deep-freeze lorries as they do at the moment.
It is horrifying. If one looks around the Chamber, the thought of all of us dead in a tomato truck is quite horrendous. Can we not make greater efforts to ensure that the continentals take more trouble stopping immigrants and that we go after the gangs of evil traffickers?
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